India’s Illiterate Revolution

The United States has long been divided over what it calls “affirmative action,” a system of racial preferences intended to overcome the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination against black Americans. India is now becoming divided in much the same way, and for much the same reason – the emerging system of “reserved places” aimed at redressing centuries of caste discrimination. But India’s good intentions, like America’s affirmative action policies, are misguided.

The underlying question is whether merit as a criterion for advancement is doomed when legacies of racial and caste discrimination exist. Are those who agitate for affirmative action fighting for something that is more a quack remedy than a real solution?

In fact, India’s “reserved places” scheme operates as a deliberate smokescreen, for it allows the government cleverly to mask the real issue, which is access to primary education for India’s disadvantaged. Were adequate primary education available to India’s poor – or, for that matter, to America’s poor urban blacks – there would be no need for reserved places in higher education and elsewhere.

Indeed, any Indian able to read this article should consider himself lucky, because India’s politicians have succeeded in keeping a majority of the country’s population thoroughly illiterate (as well as poor and unhealthy). Instead of providing quality elementary education for all, our policymakers are more concerned with enacting caste-based measures aimed at short-term political gains.